Mauricio Kagel: Exotica

Program Note

Mauricio Kagel (1931-2008)
Exotica (1971/72)

Despite his relative obscurity in the United States, Mauricio Kagel was one of the twentieth century’s great conceptual artists. A composer whose assaultive music was categorized as “classical” because record stores didn’t know where else to put it, Kagel was an intellectual prankster and social provocateur on the grand, protean level of Marcel Duchamp—or Lenny Bruce. His specialty was a heady, unforgiving onslaught on audience expectations, the sort of theatrical meta-gesture that, for example, requires the conductor of an orchestral piece to feign a realistic fatal heart attack on stage.

Kagel was born in Buenos Aires to parents who were self-professed anarchists, Russian Jews who fled the bloody, ideal-shattering aftermath of the October Revolution. They instilled in him the paradoxical ability to believe in humankind’s potential for good while simultaneously managing not to expect too much from it. “The most important values of Jewishness,” Kagel told the New York musician Anthony Coleman in an interview published in BOMB in 2004, are “self-irony and never-ending reflection and commentary, tolerance and paradox, humor, mysticism and mystery”—an apt description of the determining qualities of Kagel’s art. These same values were reinforced by the literary-artistic culture he grew up in, particularly by Jorge Luis Borges, with whom Kagel studied English literature at the University of Buenos Aires and who later employed Kagel as the photography and film editor for his literary journal nueva visión.

After an equally formative period spent stage-managing and coaching performers at the world-famous opera house Teatro Colón—and, notably, after his sister was briefly detained by the police during a demonstration against the post-Peron military regime—Kagel left Argentina in 1957 on a German exchange scholarship and wound up in Cologne, where he lived for the rest of his life. Drawn to Germany by the chance to work in an electronic music studio, Kagel quickly found his calling in the exploration of pure sound—an artistic journey that naturally led him into uncharted realms of composition. At the end of the ’50s, cutting-edge orchestral music was dominated by what one might call “the Darmstadt aesthetic,” after the yearly German new-music festival that brought Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez their fame. The music coming out of Darmstadt at that time was predominantly serialist—composed by following logical and mathematical criteria rather than self-expression or under-theorized aesthetic preferences. Kagel’s early music, with its absurdist theatricality and South American chutzpah—which were cerebral and funny, theoretical and expressive—had a direct and lasting impact not only on Stockhausen, who immediately incorporated several of Kagel’s unorthodox techniques (although without Kagel’s comic timing or anarchic instincts), but also on young turks like Ligeti and the great Italian composer-conductor Bruno Maderna. Through the ’60s and into the ’70s, and even more than John Cage, Kagel offered a profound counterexample to dominant musical practices; he brought the sensibility of the ’60s into classical music before the ’60s even started.

By 1998, when he won the Erasmus Prize—the Nobel of the European art world, past recipients including Marc Chagall and Charlie Chaplin—he was no longer an enfant and certainly no longer terrible. However, even in the early days of this century, when state support for the avant-garde was at its lowest ebb (so far), Kagel managed to remain a central participant in the world of European art music.

—Abigail Miller for Tablet Magazine (ed.Fiona Boyd)

Scored for “non-European instruments”, Exotica was a commission for the 20th Olympic Games in Munich in 1972. The first performance took place under the direction of Mauricio Kagel himself, and the instrumentalists included such well-known new music personalities as Vinko Globokar, Siegfried Palm, Christoph Caskel, and Michel Portal. The six participants had to “manhandle” around 200 wind, string and percussion instruments wholly unknown in Europe. In Exotica, Kagel strove to question “the dominance of Western music or ‘culture’” and “go back to the primeval origins of music-making, when singing was still at one with making sound out of simple, everyday objects.”